Weekly Torah Commentary. – Bo January 19, 2018

Torah reading: Exodus 10:1 – 13:6

Haftorah reading: Jeremiah 46: 14 – 28

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, darkness which may even be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days. They did not see one another; nor did anyone rise from his place for three days. But all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings. Then Pharaoh called to Moses and said, “Go, serve the Lord; only let your flocks and your herds be kept back. Let your little ones also go with you.” But Moses said, “You must also give us sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God. Our livestock also shall go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind. For we must take some of them to serve the Lord our God, and even we do not know with what we must serve the Lord until we arrive there.” But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go. Then Pharaoh said to him, “Get away from me! Take heed to yourself and see my face no more! For in the day you see my face you shall die!”  Exodus 10:21-29

darkness

 

The plague of darkness brought upon Egypt was dreadful. Can you imagine living through three days of complete and total darkness, a darkness so thick you could actually “feel” the darkness?  It astonished and terrified the Egyptians. For three long days it remained so that it felt like six interminable nights.  Why did God do this?

One probable reason is that it gave Pharaoh time to consider his next steps. Spiritual darkness is spiritual bondage; while Satan blinds men’s eyes that they see not, he binds their hands and feet, that they work not for God, nor live with an eternal perspective.

So they sit in darkness. The blindness of their minds brought upon them this darkness of the air. Never was a mind so blinded as Pharaoh’s, never was air so darkened as in Egypt. Consider the dire consequences of sin; if three days of darkness were so dreadful, what will everlasting darkness be like?

Meanwhile the people of God had light in their dwellings, manifesting the favor of the Holy One of Israel upon them.  Given the stark difference between the oppressive darkness in Egypt and the light emanating from the homes of the Israelites in Goshen, who in their right mind would not have wanted to align with those who had light?

Is it any different today?  A pall of darkness overshadows much of our world today – a spiritual darkness has pervaded cultures and societies in the east and the west, in the north and the south.  No nation on earth is neutral.  As a matter of fact, the Scriptures know nothing of being “neutral”.  Joshua, you will remember, challenged the Israelites:

Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness….choose you this day Whom you shall serve…but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.  Joshua 24:15

We do not bargain with God Almighty for His terms of reconciliation are so clear, that though men may dispute them, they cannot possibly alter them, or bring them lower. Repentance and a changed life.  That is what God expects and we must submit to His ways; we cannot, we dare not, expect that He should condescend to accommodate our pursuit of selfish pleasures.

Pharaoh had not reckoned with that truth.  He abruptly sends Moses away. Had he forgotten how often he had sent for Moses to ease him of his plagues? And now he dares to threaten Moses with death? Has Pharaoh learned nothing?   Is it not terrifying to behold what hardness of heart, and contempt of God’s word and commandments, can bring men to!

Darkness has crept into our modern world in recent times, slowly but oh, so surely.  That which would not even be spoken of in the last generation is common parlance today, even among our youth.  Honor, respect for one’s elders, integrity and courtesy are quickly becoming forgotten virtues.

In the midst of such darkness, there must be lighthouses.  Places, people who show forth the light of the LORD. Have we not been called by Him to be a “light to the nations”?

In Tune with Torah this week = Are you a light bulb for God?  Is your heart completely His?

The eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth to give strong support to those who hearts are completely His.  2 Chronicles 16:9

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayakhel-Pekudei March 24, 2017

Torah Reading: Exodus 35-40
Haftorah Reading: Ezekiel 45:16 – 46:18

In this week’s Haftorah portion we find the commandment of Passover reiterated by the prophet Ezekiel to the people of Israel.

In the first month, on the fourteenth of the month, you shall have the Passover, a feast of seven days; unleavened bread shall be eaten. Ezekiel 45:21

Pesach2

This year Passover begins on April 11th and ends on April 18th. Most households here in Israel are already in the throes of preparation. One’s entire home is cleaned until it’s spotless; menus for the seven days are planned and except for perishables, the shopping has already started; and invitations to one’s Seder meal have already been dispatched. It’s an exceedingly busy time, especially in Israel.

But beyond all that, what is most important about Passover is what we remember and what we look forward to. Like all the Biblical festivals, Passover is past, present and future.  It speaks of our past deliverance, our present determination and our future destiny.

Passover conveys five major concepts that serve every generation well. They are the five most important things to know about Passover, and to incorporate into every day of the rest of the year. They are: history, optimism, faith, family, and responsibility.

1) History or Memory: It has been said that the idea of history originated with the Hebrews going all the way back to Abraham.

“Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
“Remember that the Lord took you out of the bondage of slavery.”

To record and remember is a biblical mandate that had never seemed important to anyone else before the Jewish people came on the scene. It was the Passover story that initiated a commitment to memory. History is the only way we can learn from the past. History allows us to grow by standing on the shoulders of giants. Make a mistake once, and you’re human. Never learn from what happened before, and you’re brainless. That’s why it’s so important to heed the famous words of George Santayana that “Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.”

2) Optimism: The most difficult task Moses had to perform was not to get the Jews out of Egypt, but to get Egypt out of the Jews. They had become so acclimated to their status as slaves, they lost all hope that they could ever be free. Hope creates optimism and the hope they held onto originated in the covenant of God with Abraham.

The true miracle of Passover is the message that with God’s help, no difficulty is insurmountable. A tyrant like Pharaoh could be overthrown. A nation as powerful as Egypt could be defeated. Slaves could be free. The oppressed could break the shackles of their captivity. Anything is possible, if only we dare to dream the impossible dream. That hope is, someone has said, in the DNA of the Jew. I hope it’s in yours as well!

3) Faith: The very foundation of Judaism and the Jewish people is FAITH. That is the legacy which our father Abraham bequeathed to us. Some four hundred and thirty years before the Torah was given, FAITH in a personal God was planted firmly into the Abrahamic line of descendants, into their spiritual heritage.

The God of Sinai didn’t say “I am the Lord your God who created the heavens and the earth.” Instead, he announced, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” The God of creation could theoretically have forsaken the world once he completed his task. The God of the Exodus is constantly involved in our history and has an unshakeable commitment to our survival.

4) Family: The importance of family cannot be overstated. God built his nation not by commanding not a collective gathering of hundreds of thousands in a public square but by asking Jews to turn their homes into places of family worship at a Seder devoted primarily to answering the questions of children. The home is where we first form our identities and discover our values. No wonder then that commentators point out the very first letter of the Torah is a bet, the letter whose meaning is house. All of the Torah follows only after we understand the primacy of family.

5) Responsibility: Passover reminds us that no man is an island. We are responsible first for ourselves, yes; but also for family, friends and society.
As we celebrate the great deliverance from slavery, some may ask why were we enslaved to begin with? Why did God allow that?

The Torah and the Prophets tell us that we were slaves in Egypt – and so we must have empathy for the downtrodden in every generation. We were slaves in Egypt – so we must be concerned with the rights of the strangers, the homeless and the impoverished. We experienced oppression – and so we must understand more than anyone else the pain of the oppressed.

The purpose of our suffering was to turn us into a people committed to righting the wrongs of the world, to become partners with God in preparing the world to become the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom to be ruled by the Messiah.

In Tune with Torah this week = From earliest childhood every Jew child learns to embrace these five ideals: history (memory), optimism, faith, family and responsibility. These are not just ideals for the Jewish people but for all nations and all peoples. As we prepare for Passover let us ponder these truths and renew our personal commitment to all that they represent.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – April 22, 2016 PASSOVER

We have an unusual situation this Shabbat. Friday night at sundown, not only does the Sabbath begin, but also the week long Festival of Passover.  Therefore the regular Torah cycle of readings is suspended until after Passover is completed.

Pesach

The readings for this week are Exodus 12:21-51, Numbers 28:16-25 and Joshua 3:5-7, 5:2 – 6:1, 6:27.  I encourage you to read them at your leisure.

Here in Israel, our people have been super busy, cleaning all the leaven out of their homes and preparing for the Seder (festive meal) Friday evening.  What is it about Passover that is so special that an entire nation prepares diligently, even feverishly, for it each year?

Early in the Torah, God defines himself by the event commemorated each year at Passover: At the beginning of the ten commandments he introduces himself like this: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”. 

Previously He called Himself “The God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob”, or “I AM” but beginning at this point He is “The One who brought you out of Egypt” and that self-description is repeated throughout the Hebrew Bible literally hundreds of times.

Many of the Psalms refer to the Passover miracle and though many Jewish people consider Mt. Sinai as the defining moment, perhaps God sees the Passover as the cornerstone of the Israel story.  Passover was the moment in history when the Jewish race became the Jewish faith.

Our God is all about freedom; human choice is at the heart of the unfolding deliverance of the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery. Even though God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart”, that only happened after some serious choices on Pharaoh’s part to harden his own heart first. God just confirmed his free choice.

The children of Israel also had to choose whether to go along with God’s plan or not. They were not rescued from the Angel of Death by force – He gave them an “opt in” clause: to have death pass over your house, you must sacrifice a lamb and dab its blood on your door frame. This act of faith constituted the individual’s response to a command of God which carried a promise with it.  All who believed it was true and acted accordingly were saved. That means that those who escaped from Egypt freely chose to obey God and follow him by faith – not just because of their national ancestry. This is the moment that the people of Israel became a faith community.

As we mentioned, the ten commandments are introduced by God’s reminder that he loves to set slaves free, and the very first command when he subsequently lays down the rest of the Torah is this: “These are the laws you are to set before them: If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything.” (Exodus 21:1-2). What a strange subject with which to start a new code of government, spiritual life and ethics! But God is determined that his people should not be in slavery – they should be free. This is the message of passover. That is what the exodus was all about. God is serious about making his people free.

Remembering is very important to God. The Bible frequently urges us to do just that: “Remember”.  If we remember what God has done, what He has said and who He is, we our faith in Him is energized and our trust solidifies.

The Passover Seder meal is a festive, teaching, and remembering experience, instituted by God himself, in order to prevent us from forgetting His amazing power and faithfulness. Today the family celebration is based around four cups of wine and a “haggadah” or “telling” which is like an order of service. There are different ideas about what each of the four cups represents, but generally the first cup is about being set apart for God, the second is the time to tell the story, the third is after the meal, when Jewish people usually give thanks for their food, and the last one is “hallel” or praise, during which the psalms of thanksgiving are recited.

Each item of food on the table symbolizes something in the story  and each aspect of the evening helps the Jewish people to remember the miracles God did for them and even to re-live them. It is as if we ourselves were delivered from the oppression of Pharoah.

The ultimate purpose of the Seder is to re-awaken and strengthen relationship. God wants intimacy with his people. God looks back at that time right after the exodus as something of a honeymoon with his people:

“This is what the LORD says:“‘I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown. Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest”. Jeremiah 2:1-3

“Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt.” Hosea 2:14-15

Someone once said “a dessert is something you want and don’t need, but the desert is something you don’t want, but you do need”.  We all experience ‘desert’ times in our spiritual life but it’s often during those times that our relationship with God deepends. One day ultimate rest will be ours but until then, life with God is not always going to be a walk in the park.

Passover is the time to draw closer to the One who delivers, saves and redeems.  We are with him, and he is with us. We are his people, and he is our God. The joy of relationship with Him is our strength and our song.

It is also a time to look to the future. “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when it will no longer be said, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ but it will be said, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the Israelites up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ For I will restore them to the land I gave their ancestors.” Jeremiah 16:14-16 .

The story of God and the children of Israel is not over yet. God has indeed brought the Israelites out from the land of the north (Russia and surrounding area) and thousands have come to live in Israel from countries around the globe.  Many do not yet attribute this phenomenon to God but the days are coming when they will know it is truly His doing.

Meanwhile, we celebrate the Passover past and look forward to the future ‘Passover’ when we will transition from life as we know it to the promised manifestation of the restored Kingdom of God on this earth.  May it come quickly, even in our day!

A blessed Passover to all my readers – and Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Miketz December 11, 2015

Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

In this Torah portion, Joseph interprets the dreams of the Pharaoh, predicting seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, and as result becomes Viceroy or Prime Minister, the second most powerful man in Egypt. After the famine began, his brothers come to Egypt to buy food. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. He keeps his identity hidden while he decides to test them. It will be yet some time before he reveals himself and asks for his father.

Biblical scholars have long wondered why Joseph never contacted his father. He’s called a tzaddik, a righteous man so how to explain this? Wouldn’t he have realized that his father was grieving?

Nachmanides (the Ramban) suggested in his commentary that Joseph could not have contacted his father until the dreams of his youth came true.  Only then could he be vindicated and reveal himself to his family.

Other commentators disagree with this view. Dreams are in the domain of God, they say; let Him worry about dreams. It is man’s job to do what is ethical, and the ethical thing for Joseph would have been to inform his father Jacob that he was alive and well.

A contemporary writer takes yet another position. Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun has suggested that perhaps the question is not Why did Joseph not contact Jacob? but instead, Why did Jacob not try to contact Joseph?

The answer seems straightforward; Jacob thought that Joseph was dead. However, Joseph had no idea what had happened back at home, and he could well have been asking himself: “Why doesn’t my father contact me?” We can agree that the sequence of events, from Joseph’s perspective, may suggest that line of thought.

Consider: Joseph knew that Jacob was well aware of the hostility between Joseph and his brothers. Could Joseph have wondered why Jacob sent him to look for his brothers in the first place?

Furthermore, there was a pattern in the family’s history that whenever relatives did not get along, the solution was to separate. It happened between Abraham and Lot, between Ishmael and Isaac and even with his father Jacob and his uncle, Esau. Could Joseph have assumed that because of all the dissension he stirred up in his father’s house, Jacob had decided to send him away?

Could it be that only upon learning from Judah that Jacob thinks his favorite son had been “ripped apart by beasts” [Genesis 44:28] did Joseph realize that his father thought that he was in fact dead?  Is that realization what prompted Joseph to reveal himself to his brothers at that moment and send for his father?

Another viewpoint: Given Joseph’s intimate relationship with his father Jacob, is it possible that Joseph thought, How can I expose to my father the terrible thing my brothers did? And if I betray them to my father, am I not doing as they did to me? What good will come of it? Shall my father lose his other ten sons because I make myself known to him?

According to this approach, Joseph’s consideration was completely selfless. To have been reunited with his father would clearly have been a great personal triumph for him, but it would have had tragic consequences. Therefore, Joseph chose to remain apart.

In Tune with Torah this week = try to imagine yourself in Joseph’s position. What would you have done? And why?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Shemot December 19, 2013

Exodus/Shemot 1:1 – 6:1

This week’s Torah portion, the first in the Book of Exodus, tells the story of the enslavement – and the beginning of the liberation – of the Jews in Egypt. At the time, the Jewish community had strayed from the path of the Patriarchs yet some aspects of tradition remained intact. The Jews persisted in their language, their names and in their mode of dress. Yet, curiously, it appears that Moses – the ‘savior’ – seems to be lacking in these same areas.

Moses was born into a family from the tribe of Levi. At that time there was an edict that all newborn males be thrown into the Nile River. Moses was found as a baby by the daughter of Pharaoh who adopted him and named him; thus Moses was not his Hebrew name.

And the child grew, and was brought to the daughter of Pharaoh, he became a son to her, she named him Moses, and she said (explained) “for from the water he was drawn out.” [Exodus 2:10]

When the daughter of Pharaoh named Moses what was she trying to communicate?

In order to understand the depth of her action, we must first understand who this woman was, and, for that matter who her father was. In the Book of Ezekiel the following passage appears:

Speak and communicate, thus says God, “Behold I am against you Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great crocodile that crouches in the midst of the streams who says the (Nile) River is mine, for I created it.” [Ezekiel 29:3]

Pharaoh believed that he was god of the Nile, that he created the Nile. This insight allows us to understand why the children were thrown into the Nile. When the midwives refused to kill the newborn males, Pharaoh suggested that they throw the babies into the water instead. In effect he said, “cast the children into the Nile, and the god of the Nile shall decide who will live and who will die”, as if the midwives would not be performing the act of murder.

This will also give us insight into the first plague — “blood.” Turning the Nile into blood was an act of war, perceived by the Egyptians as if someone had stabbed their god.

Not only did Pharaoh think that he was god of the Nile, but he named his daughter Bitya, “daughter of god.” This was the woman who saved, and named, Moses. Her father was “god of the Nile” she was daughter of “god”, and she pulled a son out of the Nile, and named him Moses. Therefore, Bitya, in naming Moses, was making a claim which had theological meaning as well as political implications. She was claiming that the Nile had given birth to her son.

Of course, she knew rationally, that one of the Hebrews had in fact given birth to Moses, but we must recall that casting the children into the Nile was not seen as murder, but rather as some type of judgment.

Moses emerged from the Nile alive, which had profound theological significance for Bitya. He was therefore declared “son of the Nile.” She is obviously positioning him to become the next Pharaoh, or at least to take his place among the pantheon of Egyptian gods. Therefore we see that not only does Moses have an Egyptian name, but his name is steeped with idolatrous connotations. How ironic that the savior of the Jews should be seen as a god by the Egyptians.

This insight also gives us a greater appreciation of Moses, for we now understand what is was like for him to leave the palace to “seek out his brothers.”

When Moses interceded and killed the Egyptian, he was in effect rejecting the entire way of life that was laid out for him. By killing the Egyptian, Moses forfeited his role in Egyptian society; he would no longer be seen as a god, but only as a Jew, and his chances of one day ascending the throne disappeared.
This self-sacrifice was the first step toward assuming the mantle of leadership of the Jews, though at the time Moses had no such idea.

The Jews also retained a different language, Hebrew, but here, too, Moses seems lacking. The Torah tells us that Moses had difficulty with speech: I am not an eloquent man … but I am slow of speech, and slow of tongue. [Exodus 4:10]

Moses also dressed in the manner of the Eyptians for when Moses escapes Egypt and makes his way to Midian, he is described as Ish Mitzri, an “Egyptian man” because of his manner of dress.

Later, Moses describes himself as v’ani oral sfataim — “I whose lips are uncircumcised.” [Exodus 6:12 and 6:30] If we take the literal meaning, it emerges that Moses does not feel that he has the right to represent the people because his tongue is uncircumcised. In other words, Moses is too Egyptian to represent the Jews.

If, indeed, the Jews are saved because they retained these three practices, then Moses seems an unlikely savior. Why is Moses chosen?

As we saw by Moses’ response to the oppression of his fellow Jew, he certainly did possess leadership qualities.

The model of leadership in the Jewish tradition is not the individual who is willing to subjugate others, rather the individual who is willing to sacrifice for others.

Despite his upbringing, Moses rejected his role in Egyptian society, as well as the culture and beliefs of Egypt. This is evidenced by the fact that after leaving Egypt, we are told:

“And Moses was the shepherd of his father in laws flock” [Exodus 3:1]

This seemingly innocent statement has great significance, if we recall that when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt, Joseph warned them that they must delicately inform Pharaoh of their occupation:

“For every shepherd is considered an abomination in Egypt.” [Genesis 46:34]

Moses become a shepherd, the most detestable occupation in the value system of Egypt. It was then that God revealed himself to Moses for the first time, at the “Burning Bush.” The rejection of Egyptian life is what apparently allowed the Divine Revelation.

We can begin to understand why Moses deserved to be leader: He possessed incredible spiritual integrity.

From where did Moses take the strength to change his life? What inspired Moses to begin a spiritual quest, an odyssey which would take him from heir to the Egyptian throne to freedom-fighter for the disenfranchised slaves? From lowly shepherd to vanquisher of the Egyptian empire?

Moses embodied the chesed, “kindness” of Abraham, the gevurah, “strength” of Isaac, and emet, “truth” of Jacob. Moses was the most modest of men and became the finest leader and teacher that our people have had.

These aspects of Moses’ character became evident in his reaction to the beating of the Jewish slave. Moses felt kindness toward the victim.He displayed strength by holding back personal considerations and involving himself in the altercation. And finally Moses showed that he embodied truth by immediately discerning which side was right.

Moses certainly deserved his leadership role, but another question arises: Why did God choose a Jew brought up in the palace as the leader?

Evidently, in order for the exodus to take place precisely a person like Moses was needed.

A powerful lesson about the nature of the exodus can be learned from this. Had God desired for the Jews to leave Egypt, He surely could have simply “willed” it. Why go through the entire process of plagues and negotiations with Pharaoh?

The purpose would seem to be twofold — it was necessary both for the Jews and for the Egyptians.

After spending all these years in Egypt, the beliefs of the Egyptians would have made inroads into the Jewish mentality. What better way to show the bankruptcy of the Egyptian belief system than having one of the Egyptian “gods” revealed as a Jew? For the Jews this would eradicate any underlying belief in Egyptian mythology.

On the other hand, the message was also important for the Egyptians; they too needed to know that their religion was false. What better teacher than Moses, the ultimate “insider”? At one point he had dressed like them, talked like them, and they were even prepared to worship him.

This theme of educating the Egyptians is highlighted later in the book of Shemot where we are told that one day all the nations of the world will recognize the one true God.

The redemption of Egypt, which serves as a prototype for the final redemption, not merely illustrates the removal of the Jews from this foreign land, but it serves as a powerful challenge to the greatest civilization in the world at that time.

When the final redemption comes, it will be the greatest event in the history of the world. It will not affect the Jewish people alone, but every nation of the world.

In Tune with Torah this week = as we hope and look forward to the ultimate redemption, may we learn from Moses the power of humility, faith, kindness and integrity.

Shabbat Shalom